Living with Mountain Lions

by Barry Martin
Editor's note: Recently, there has been extensive public concern and controversy about the proposed fate of mountain lions in inhabited areas. Is there a substantial danger? Should they be exterminated, relocated or protected? The following article is reprinted with permission from the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve's Canyon News. It provides a scholarly and factual account of these magnificent animals, and should help dispel some of the myths and superstition surrounding them.
ue to the recent interest generated by the behavior and subsequent killing of the mountain lion in Cuyamaca, it is appropriate to present this discussion of the mountain lion or Felis Concolor.
This magnificent animal has also been called cougar, puma, panther, painter, and catamount. Known for it's stealth, grace and adaptability, the cougar once was the most widely distributed mammal in North America. They still are found in habitats ranging from swamps and deserts to mountains above 10,000 feet.
Vital statistics
6' - 9'; average male 6 1/2'; average female 6'
Weight: 60 lbs. - 230 lbs.;
Average male 130 lbs.;
Average female 90 lbs.
Color: Tawny gray/brown; black on tip of tail only
Behavior: Cougars are very solitary and secretive and will avoid open areas, preferring cover. They avoid people if at all possible and will not attack them unless cornered, injured or diseased; even then attack is unlikely.
The cougar's tail appears nearly as long as its body, although it is not. The tail is usually held so that it nearly touches the ground.
A study of cougars in the Santa Ana Mountains included a male cougar that had been hit by a car. After the accident, this cougar lived for several months in dense brush below a row of houses in Orange County. His hip socket was destroyed, but he managed to survive on possums and other small game. No homeowners were ever aware of his presence, and no domestic animals were consumed as prey.
During this study, which ran from April 1988 through January 1993, 19 female and 13 male cougars were radio-tagged and observed. None of these animals keyed in on humans or human-related picnic trash. Some keyed in on farm livestock; however, this was rare.

Lion attacks

After researching all known cougar attacks on humans throughout the United States and Canada since 1890, researcher Paul Beier concluded that being attacked by a cougar - much less killed by one - is statistically less likely than being killed by lightning or a black widow spider. However rare, there have been a slightly higher number of human/cougar encounters in the recent past. This probably is due to the continued encroachment of humans upon dwindling habitat areas. More people "heading for the hills" increases the likelihood of encounters.
Still, it should be emphasized that cougar attacks are rare. Beier reports, "There were 11 deaths in over a century. This is far less than the annual total number of people killed by lightning, rattlesnake bites, or bee stings. Attacks are especially rare when one considers that cougars forgo thousands of opportunities to attack humans. In my own work, I have documented cougars bedded for the day a few feet off a well-used park trail. The cougar doubtlessly was aware of the hikers; the hikers were completely unaware of the cougar and therefore were at risk of being ambushed."

What to do in case of attack

Even though attacks are extremely rare, with only one attack per decade resulting in death, knowledge is still the best tool for minimizing the threat. Current research based on data from actual incidents suggests that noise and vigorous action is the most common factor noted to have dissuaded attacks. Stand to your full height, wave your arms, yell, whistle, throw rocks or sticks, etc.
Whatever you do, don't play dead. The cougar's natural instinct is to drag a dead animal to a safe area, then eat it. It may be wise to play dead with a bear, but not a cougar.

Some dietary surprises

The cougar's preferred meal is deer. However, many other animals contribute to its diet. A cougar will bring down a deer on average once every 10 days.
The cougar quietly waits or stalks until its prey is within range. Then, in a tremendous explosion of power the cougar charges after the deer like a locomotive, bounds onto the deer from behind, and bites the back of the neck, severing the spinal column. The mountain lion drags the carcass from the kill area to a safe place.
Cougars under study in the Santa Ana Mountains generally followed a very predictable pattern of prey consumption:
  1. Cougars spent 3 - 4 days consuming a deer. They usually ate the entire carcass, often including the brain and some bone marrow. Generally the heart, lungs and liver were eaten immediately folllowing the kill. Major muscles were consumed over the next few days.
  2. Deer were usually dragged a short distance from the kill site to where they were consumed. These sites were generally cool canyon bottoms with good hiding cover.
  3. Prey consumption was almost entirely at night. Deer carcasses usually were covered with leaves and twigs at dawn and left covered all day. The deer's rumen (major stomach) was almost always buried in a separate leaf mound several feet away from the carcass. The rumen was never consumed.
  4. The cougar usually bedded down for the day near the carcass, but sometimes up to 1.5 km away.
  5. Smaller prey - like opossums, raccoons and skunks - were usually consumed in 3 - 5 hours; sometimes these carcasses would also be covered

Their overall diet consisted of:

"Other" included raccoons, unidentified candids, domestic cats, unidentified rodents, beavers, badgers, skunks, goats, and moles (each < 2%). It's not unreasonable to expect the data gleaned from this study to be an accurate reflection of the habits of other mountain lions whose range may encompass portions of our preserve. With regard to the range of a cougar, several interesting facts emerged as a result of the Santa Ana study:

Habitat range

Home ranges of adult females averaged about 220-square km over a full year. Male home ranges were about four times the size of female ranges. It took about seven months for an adult cougar to use most of its home range, with only a fraction used in a single month. An adult female cougar typically used less than a third of her home range in any given month.
Thus, no tracks or other signs for 200 days is strong evidence that the site is not part of any cougar's normal home range. However, shorter studies could well fail to detect the presence of a resident cougar. (This is one good reason why a long-term animal survey is being developed for the Los Peñasquitos Preserve.)
The ranges of adult females overlapped extensively while male ranges overlapped minimally.
Cougars in the Santa Ana Mountain Range used all available habitats, although some were preferred and others avoided. Cougars used large grasslands much less than smaller grassland areas. When they crossed grasslands at night, they moved quickly to the nearest woody vegetation. Row-crop agricultural areas were carefully avoided. Cougars used all types of terrain, including the steepest slopes and rock outcrops. During long distance movements cougars seemed to prefer the bottoms of larger canyons. Dirt roads that paralleled these zones were used as the cougar alternated between the wash and the road. Ridge tops were also favored travel routes, especially when a dirt road or hiking trial created an easy path through chaparral.
Cougars avoided denser (housing) areas, although they would skirt those areas within 100 meters of their peripheral homes. Cougars tolerate one dwelling per 40 acres if those areas are adjacent to unpopulated areas. Paul Beier estimates that the transition from habitat to non-habitat occurs at about one dwelling per 20 acres.
Cougars have large home ranges and do not reach high population density. Their habitat must be contiguous with, or connected to, at least several hundred square miles of suitable habitat. Loss of connectivity causes many wildlands to cease being cougar habitat (as well as habitat for many other species). That is, wildlife corridors are necessary to support the diversity of species once abundant and now on the decline in Southern California. In the Santa Ana study, five criteria determined cougar habitat:
  1. Vegetation was predominantly native.
  2. There was some woody vegetation.
  3. The area had ample prey, especially mule deer.
  4. There was a low density of buildings and human dwellings.
  5. The area was contiguous or connected to the main block of cougar habitat.
The Los Peñasquitos Preserve fits this criteria as an extension of a greater area of lion habitat to the north, east and south. Unfortunately, Miramar access is cut off to the south due to development. Recently, the completion of Pomerado Road - without regard to inclusion of a viable wildlife corridor - has cut off the preserve to the east. The "merge" of freeways I-805 and I-5 has cut off western access. The north is all that is left. Plans for this area are being watched with a keen sense of urgency.

Reliability of sightings

There have been several recent mountain lion sightings within the Los Peñasquitos preserve and to the north, toward Carmel Mountain. These reports sound valid and have been given by reliable, experienced people.
However, Paul Beier has observed, "In our experience during 1988-1992, at least 75% and perhaps as many as 95% of the routine sightings were cases where the observer has incorrectly identified a bobcat, coyote, domestic dog, domestic cat, raccoon, or deer." His report illustrates that even people with extensive experience can mistakenly identify other animals as cougars. Such sightings must be viewed with some degree of scepticism.
However, I am very interested in any sighting and would like to be notified immediately via the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon's answering machine or rangers Bill Lawrence or Reneene Mowry. We would like to take castings of tracks as part of our wildlife study/survey. Quick notification of the sighting is of paramount importance because of the fragile nature of tracks found in the preserve.

Tracks take careful study

How can you identify a cougar track?
A cougar will almost always leave tracks on a dirt trail. With a track identification guide in hand, check everywhere within a 1/4 mile of the sighting area. Keep in mind these key points about cougar tracks: If you see an animal that fits the description of a mountain lion - without a doubt - and you can confirm the sightings with tracks, you are indeed fortunate. Please call us right away (619-484-3219). Then reflect on the fact that you have seen one of nature's most magnificent creatures in the wild.